Creating Familial Support, Outreach and Opportunity for Youth Aging Out of Foster Care
When someone ages out of foster care, adjusting to life as an adult can be an unusually steep uphill climb—especially if they want to attend college. Personal and financial support are just the tip of the iceberg. For some, the idea of pursuing a degree feels overwhelming, if not completely out of reach.
That’s where The Pratt Center at Cleveland State University comes in. Part of Campus Engagement, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, the center has been open since 2017.
Named in honor of the late Dr. Charleyse S. Pratt, assistant vice president for inclusion and multicultural engagement at CSU and founding director of CSU’s Sullivan-Deckard Scholars Opportunity Program, the center offers a unique multiuse space that enables students from diverse cultural backgrounds to “lean in” and circumnavigate college together.
Located in Rhodes Tower, the center is reminiscent of other “similarly missioned” student success centers at campuses across the country. The Pratt Center recognizes the value an on-site integrated space to support academic growth, leadership, development and retention for those of who have lacked a traditional support system.
The center’s “Fostering Success and Leadership” programs are designed for youth who are aging out of foster care (or have experienced foster care) and aspire to pursue an undergraduate degree. Pratt’s trained Student Navigators specialize in a variety of academic related subjects, all to aid CSU students with high quality support.
The center also has scholarship offerings, created initially through gifts by the Sullivan and Deckard families, which served as the catalyst to increase post-secondary opportunities and help with books, resources, meal plans, gap tuition assistance, transitional supports and more.
The Pratt Center Meets the COVID-19 Era
As if the challenges described above weren’t difficult enough for the Center and its students, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic threatened to derail stability. It’s hard to lean in and social distance.
Strategic planning to preserve the interpersonal connection between student, mentors and programs began almost immediately, including hundreds of hours of remote teaching, virtual coaching and tutoring, wellness sessions, graduation celebrations, leadership training and more.
The Center also extended their outreach models in other ways—including a coordinated effort in 16-week remote dining plan with CSU catering, as well as biweekly care packages including grocery cards, hygiene products, cleaning supplies, sheets, towels and more.
Then there was the development of a three-credit hour course that promoted the exploration of daily living in occupations of emerging and young adults. The course provided an alternative set of resources for scholars unable to physically meet in the Pratt Center for similar services as a result of the pandemic.
Although Vikings have returned to campus, much of the Pratt pivot that happened over the last 18 months resulted in outreach models that continue, including the recent “Operation: Grab & Gobble” initiative that took place around Thanksgiving.
A New Kind of Thankful
“At the end of October, Sullivan-Decker scholars that meet biweekly to check-in discovered that the traditional statewide dinners for transition-age youth were canceled due to COVID protocol,” said Jarrett Pratt, M.Ed., director of Student Success at The Pratt Center and son of Dr. Charlyese Pratt.
“For a young person who is in foster care, these are already not the happiest times of the year. And with the residence halls being closed during holidays, the net effect is that a lot of students watch their peers pack up and go home to be with families,” Pratt said. “And they don’t have that.”
He knew that he and his constituents had to act.
“Those [dinner] get-togethers are so important when it comes to nurturing community and fellowship. We knew we had to do something—even despite social restrictions and distancing,” said Pratt. “When decisions like that are made, for those who are already distressed, you can imagine what the ripple effect is—and because of the pandemic, it continues to multiply.”
Thus, ‘Operation: Grab & Gobble’ was born. A sort of “niche intervention of hope, so to speak, that protects and serves the community at the very same time.”
Experiential, Engaged Learning
One of the tenets of the center is “service learning,” and in that vein, students created care packages for 50 foster care recipients which were distributed on Saturday, November 20. Hot meals, letters of hope, encouraging messages, and applications to the program were also distributed, along with a range of cold-weather gear. Though not a replacement for what was lost with dinner cancelations, there was immense value on many levels for recipients at a pivotal moment.
Pratt Center students “saw the immediate impact on people who are not far removed from situations that they might’ve found themselves in,” said Pratt. “It just so happens that 31 of those 50 happened to be identified by Cuyahoga County as either homeless or ‘housing insecure,’ some of the neediest persons out there.
“We want them to know that somebody is thinking about them,” Pratt added. “The message is, ‘You can still graduate and there’s a place for you here.’” He believes there will be similar initiatives to “Operation: Grab & Gobble” every winter going forward.
It Takes a Village
Pratt was struck by immediate buy-in from the regional community, the state, Ohio Reach, Ohio Youth Alliance, Adoption Network, YMCA Cuyahoga County, National Council of Jewish Women—essentially all the partnerships that help make the center so incredibly effective at what it offers.
Struck, but also grateful, pleased and not entirely surprised. After all, none of what The Pratt Center does happens in a vacuum, he said. And it shouldn’t be that way for those who are in foster care, either.
“Family is the connection that they desperately need to reestablish,” he said.
“In that sense, CSU and our partners really are, and can become, that family for those transitioning out of foster care. We are that delicate balance between offering help and not ‘getting in the way,’ and we are grateful that the community sees what we are doing.”
That only reinforces the message that “Northeast Ohio really has something special going on,” Pratt said.
“We’re never going to be able to completely dissolve the need for what we provide. But if we can get to the eighth, ninth and tenth grader, get familiar with what they’re curious about, help them understand that they’re not hopeless or lost, and we can help them see that there is community for them that knows where they’re coming from? Where they’re at? That kind of intervention offers promise,” Pratt finalized.
“We all want to see them graduate and succeed.”